The Dirt on Composting: A Guide for Beginners
I finally decided to take the composting leap! If you’ve been following my yardwork journey, you know gardening is not exactly my strength. Over the years I have waged war against weeds, battled my backyard, and fought with flora. But, this year is different! In fact, I have already for the last time (fingers crossed) gutted my backyard and prepped it for mulching, added a small lawn for the dogs, and planted free SMUD shade twigs that will one day become beautiful shade trees.
At CalRecycle, we’re really big on composting because it reduces waste, fertilizes depleted soils, and helps prevent climate change. It’s a win-win-win! And, now that I am the guardian of a soon-to-be stunning landscape, I’m going to need to keep it healthy—that’s where the compost comes in. The following are different methods to create compost. Each is unique, but all are helpful to you and the environment.
A Heaping Helping of Compost
Well, it’s just that—a heap or pile. If you have a large backyard like I do, a heap might work for you. Just like all compost recipes, you’ll need carbon (brown material like leaves), nitrogen (like grass, coffee grounds, and fruit and veggie scraps), water, and oxygen (that’s where a pitchfork comes in handy). Piles are great if you have space, have an area away from direct sunlight, and don’t mind getting out in the yard to turn it periodically. However, if you’re concerned with the aesthetics of a heap of organics and have trouble working a pitchfork, a pile might not be the best option for you.
Bin There, Composted That
If you are bit of a neat-freak like me, compost bins are a good alternative to the traditional heap because they keep organic waste confined and nicely packed. Depending on which one you get, they can look kind of nice, too. Bins can also help prevent pests and retain much-needed ingredients like water and heat. However, you will need to get out there with your pitchfork and turn the pile regularly and keep it out of direct sunlight, just like you would with a compost heap.
Wiggle While You Work
Maybe I have an unhealthy obsession with worms or maybe most people just aren’t as cool as I am. Either way, no one can deny the positive health effects worms have on soil. They can also make composting stress-free. They like eating your organic waste and you like making it—it’s another win-win. There are a number of ways you can get worms to do your dirty work.
- Worm tubes
Worm tubes can be made using metal or PVC pipes, or you can use a small metal garbage can like our very own CalRecycler Lisa did. It works like this: You drill holes in a large pipe, bury the pipe, dump food waste in, and let the worms eat it and return the nutrients back to the surrounding soil via their ... um, castings, a.k.a. poo. Now, there is some debate about this method as regular everyday earthworms are not the same as vermicomposting worms which require different conditions, but there have also been some success stories.
- Worm tower/factory/bin
This requires a little space and not much maintenance. Similar to the worm tube, you put the organic waste in and let the worms do the work. But, because you’re working with living beings outside their natural setting, you do have to make sure their working conditions are habitable. That means, you can’t have these little guys outside in the dead of winter, or in the direct sun in the summer, or even in your stuffy garage. They do best in their bin under your kitchen sink inside your home. The good news is, they can consume about 5 to 8 pounds of waste a week, and this method is less time-consuming than a traditional compost pile, which can take months.
Let’s Get Ready to Tumble
Finally, we come to the compost tumbler. This is a good alternative to regular back-breaking aerating (OK, using a pitchfork isn’t really all that bad). You simply put your organic waste in the top of the tumbler and spin it like the ball tumbler at grandma’s bingo games. The tumbler keeps odors contained, keeps pests away, and makes it easy to rotate the materials. Tumblers should be treated similarly to other composting methods: Keep them out of direct sunlight, don’t overwater them, and use the same formula of 75 percent brown material to 25 percent green material you would with a traditional pile. However, don’t expect to see fresh compost any time soon—material does take a few months to break down with this method. People sometimes use dual-chamber tumblers so while one batch is cooking you can start a new one. Tumblers can also be kind of expensive, ranging from $60 to $400. If you’re handy, you can also make one and spend less money.
As for me, I’m still debating which method is the best for my yard, space, and lifestyle. I was very gung-ho about vermicomposting until I heard worm tubes were not as effective because of the different worm types. And unfortunately, I don’t have much room in my home for a worm bin/tower. I am currently leaning toward a tumbler because in all honesty, I’m too lazy to actually go out and turn a compost pile, especially in the middle of the summer. But, I can see myself taking 30 seconds to rotate the tumbler each time I add food scraps. And the tumblers contain food waste and odors, which will keep me and my neighbors happy—though pests won’t be. I invite you to come back for my next composting blog to find out which method(s) I settled on and how it’s working out.